Communities of Practice around the South Basilica at Polis

In the spirit of my “Sumertime Fragments,” I’ve been working on a little piece on the relationship between the church at E.F2 at Polis, which we call the South Basilica, and various communities. Unlike most of my sober and frankly archaeological (and architectural) approaches to this building and space, I tried to offer something that’s a bit more interpretative and free wheeling (if not straying necessarily too far from the basic evidence).

This is a fragment, though, with incomplete citations, half-baked ideas, and a more playful tone than usual, but maybe it’s of interest to some folks. If nothing else it represents what I was thinking about on my walks and jogs around the village of Polis over the past few weeks:

The district surrounding the South Basilica represents the adaptability of the local community over time.

The basilica’s distinctive location along the northern edge of the city of Arsinoe positioned the church along a major route from the coast to the city itself. During the Roman period, the district featured a paved, north-south and east-west road which intersected at a quadrafrons arch. This demonstrated that this route from the coast to the city was likely a major intersection where a road running through the northern part of the city joined a road that connected the city to its ancient port either along the coast immediately north of the city or at the site of the modern village of Latchi (Nicolaou 1966; Leonard 2005). The South Basilica stood near this intersection and its western entrance opened onto the north-south road. Later additions to the South Basilica further emphasized its relationship with the roads in this district. The construction of a narthex monumentalized the western entrance to the church. A porch running along the south side of the church presented a series of arches to anyone traveling along the east-west road to the south of the building. The Christian identity of the community greeted anyone entering the city from the coast. Moreover, the narthex and the porch provide shade for the traveler, and a contemporary apsidal wellhouse immediately across the road from the basilica entrance offered water.

The parallels between the architecture of the church at Polis with its southern porch and the acropolis church at Amathous hints that the church may have also stood as a monument on the westward progress of pilgrims across the island. In this way, the South Basilica represented the intersection between the larger Christian community in the Mediterranean and the church at Arsinoe. Victor Turner famously argued that pilgrimage was a liminal phenomenon for participants en route to holy sites (Turner 1966). The liminality of the pilgrimage experience produced the temporary suspension of social differences and created a space of communitas where new and more egalitarian social relationships emerged. The liminal location of the South Basilica at the north side of the city, its possible association with pilgrimage, and its offer of shade and water allowed the architectural, ritual, and social space of the church to merge. The result is a shared space between the community at Polis and the weary Christian pilgrim. The modifications to the church also included the transformation of the building from a wood-roofed to a barrel vaulted church. The techniques needed to install buttresses to help the thin basilica walls could support barrel vaulting, for example, likely required specialized knowledge. On the island, this practice was most common among churches on the Karpas peninsula and relatively rare in the western part of island (Stewart 2010; Megaw 1946). If we assume that the South Basilica contributed to pilgrims routes across the island which culminated at the eastern port of Salamis-Constantia, then the connection between builders in the neighborhood of Salamis and the church at Polis hints at a relationship between the two communities beyond just the pilgrims’ travels.

The rebuilding of the South Basilica was more than simply a redesign of the church, but a construction project that involved the construction of a massive rubble fill layer. This level of large cobble, building debris, and broken ceramics was over a meter deep and functioned as a French drain which a large reservoir for water flowing down the north slope of the city toward the vulnerable south wall of the church building. This adaptation appears to have been a local solution to the particularly local problem of the church’s situation across the route of a drainage. Roman and Hellenistic construction in the area featured a number of deep drains and various pipes designed, it would appear, to control the downslope flow of water in the area. The deep drains may have no longer functioned by the Late Roman period and the French drain constructed to the south of the basilica offered a unique solution to the longstanding problems of water at this site. Moreover, the construction of this feature involved a significant investment in human energy and commitment to rebuild and modifying the damaged church. In other words, the construction of the French drain, the south portico and narthex as well as the conversion of the church to barrel vaulting represented the intersection of local labor and regional practices and like the situation of the church on the main route to the coast, provided a meeting point for local and regional communities.

It is worth noting, briefly, that the analysis of the ceramic material in the rubble level produced an assemblage that similarly reflected the intersection of regional and local preferences. The fine table wares at the site primarily derived from Rough Cilicia with small quantities of imports from North Africa and the Aegean. Some cooking pots originated in western Cyprus with the site of Dhiorios in approximately 100 km to the northeast (Catling 1972). Likewise certain forms of the ubiquitous Late Roman 1 amphora originated on the island while other utility wares manifest Aegean and Levantine origins. Comparing the assemblage from Polis to those elsewhere on the island suggests that access to particular types of pottery or the chronological ebb and flow of production do not alone explain the variation in types of pottery present in Cypriot assemblages (Caraher et al. 2019). For example, the assemblage of Late Roman fine ware associated with the smaller coastal site of Maroni-Petrera and the large urban site of Kourion produced a smaller percentage of African and Aegean imports than the inland village site of Kalavasos-Kopetra. The distinct character of the late-7th century assemblages at Polis as well as others from this period from across the island reflects certain traditions and practices in these communities that shaped their choice of table wares. The role of fine ware both in the performative aspects of domestic display and the practical aspects of food presentation and consumption means that the character and shape of these vessels speaks to personal and community identity (Vroom ????).

Over the last 20 years, the concept of communities of practice has emerged as a useful concept for understanding the emergence and structuring of educational and occupational communities (Wenger 1998). The term offers a useful way to articulate the how practice produces community, identity, and knowledge (Orr 1996). For the district around the South Basilica, evidence for practice in the Late Roman period range from habits of consumption, such as the preference for Cypriot Red Slip wares over other imported table wares, to those associated with the architectural modification of the church itself. In fact, the informal transmission of building knowledge that likely produced the buttressed walls of South Basilica reflected the existence of communities of knowledge in Late Roman Cyprus. In this context, then, the physical at the edge of the Late Roman city and its role in contact between the Christian community of Arsinoe and pilgrims paralleled the relationship between the adaptation of the church to meet the distinctive needs of the site through local bodies and itinerate builders.

The intersection of various communities at the South Basilica also extended from the living to the dead. At some point soon after the addition of the south portico, narthex, drain, and barrel vaults, the southern and eastern end of the church became an important cemetery for the Christian community at Arsinoe. A series of three well-appointed, built burials in the floor of the south aisle may have served as an initial impetus for the later graves in the area. Interestingly, the burial of a 17-25 year old male included a bronze cross which was likely reused from an earlier context. While the exact date of this burial remains unclear, it probably dated to the seventh or early eighth century and may have been associated with the addition of the south porch and narthex to the church. Moreover, the appearance of a cross in this burial appears to have anticipated the appearance of small pectoral crosses, often in picrolite, throughout the cemetery associated with the South Basilica. The growth of this cemetery and the use of pectoral crosses by the individuals buried around the South Basilica traces the reciprocal practices that defined the relationship between the church and the community. The formal burials in the south aisle of the church appear to have stimulated a wave of Christian burials around the church and expanded its function.

The changing character of the building may reflect the changing relationship of the church to the community at Polis.

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

As I haiku-ed this morning on the Twitters, I am working on an abstract for a paper that I’ll give at the 2019 Dumbarton Oaks colloquium “The Insular World of Byzantium” in November.

Here’s the haiku:

Writing an abstract
During the summer season
evokes autumn cold

Here’s the abstract:

An Island Archaeology of Early Byzantine Cyprus

Over the past 20 years the work of historians and archaeologists has complicated the our understanding of the 6th to 8th century on the island of Cyprus. The tidy narratives of devastating invasions, earthquakes, condominium, and social dislocation have given way to more messy and nuanced understandings of these centuries. Some centers saw continued prosperity while other experience decline. Innovative architecture existed along side more modest forms of ceramics. Invasions created destruction and new economic relationships. The complexity of this era offers some insights into character of Cypriot insularity.

This paper is grounded in recent work at the sites of Polis (ancient Arsinoe), modern Polis, in western Cyprus and the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on the eastern side of the island. Both sites produced a substantial assemblage of Late Roman to Early Byzantine pottery and a basilica style churches. Architecture and ceramics offer perspectives on how the Cypriot islandscape mediates distinctive economic relationships and forms of cultural and religious expression. The connection between these sites and other places on the island, across the region, and around the Mediterranean suggests the contours of an insular culture that is neither uniform nor consistent.

On the one hand, the difference in the character of assemblages and architecture across the island (and between Koutsopetria and Polis) makes defining a singular Late Roman or Early Byzantine Cypriot insular identity impossible. On the other hand, these difference reflect both historical trends that defined the island’s political and social landscape for centuries and distinct pressures of the 6th-8th century. In the case of Cyprus, an island archaeology informed as much by historical contingency as geography provides a context for a new understanding of the Early Byzantine era.

Settlement in Byzantine Greece

As this semester is winding down, I’m drifting toward a kind of “read everything” mode that is as fun as it is rather unproductive and unfocused. First on the list was Athanasios Vionis, “Understanding Settlement in Byzantine Greece: New Data and Approaches for Boeotia, Sixth to Thirteenth Century,” DOP 71 (2017), 127-173. It’s massive and insightful and humbling to anyone who has thought about the historical Greek landscape in a diachronic way. 

Vionis tracks the change in settlement structure across in the Medieval period in Boeotia drawing largely on survey data, ceramic study, and GIS analysis produced over the course of the various surveys in Boeotia. In some ways, this work is an extension of his interest in using “central place theory” to understand the transformation of the Mediterranean landscape over the Longue Durée, and, in other ways, it demonstrates continuity with John Bintliff’s longstanding interest in structural change over time in the Greek landscape.

For the Late Roman period in Boeotia, Vionis described the transformation of the major urban centers and the emergence of a new, monumental landscape centered on newly-constructed churches in the 6th century. It’s interesting that in Boeotia, as elsewhere, these churches stood in prominent positions in the settlements and often disrupted or violated the existing urban grid. In Corinth, however, churches tended to stand around the periphery of the settlement despite the historical and institutional significance of the bishop of that city (although, to be fair, there might be a large church closer to the ancient city center which is obscured today by the modern village). Likewise, in Argos, which features numerous Early Christian basilicas, none appear to encroach on the core of the Roman city with its agora, theater, and bath, but several stand in the in close proximity and one stands atop the Aspis hill with its ancient sanctuary. These alternate examples are not meant to suggest that Vionis is wrong or overstates his observations, but wonder out loud at the variety of monumentalizing strategies undertaken by the institutional church and Christian communities in Greece.  

Vionis also adds new vocabulary to the analysis of the Late Roman landscape in Boeotia and describes the rise of rural “microtowns” at the end of antiquity (in the late 7th century) and the consolidation of “megavillages” in the Middle Byzantine period. These microtowns continued some basic civic functions of Late Roman cities, including the presence of bishops, commercial activity, and fortifications, and often stood on or near the sites of ancient cities. They were distinct from smaller, unfortified settlements in the countryside that stood as “secondary settlements” and depended in some way on regional microtowns. Thus, a new settlement hierarchy emerged in the early Middle Ages. By the middle Byzantine period, the megavillage served as the central place for communities distributed into smaller settlements and farms in the countryside. Once again, Vionis presents the organization of the Boeotian countryside in hierarchical terms with the central places representing religious, political, and economic nodes for the surrounding region. 

There are three things that give me a bit of pause in this article (and I’ve only scratched the surface of it with my idiosyncratic mini-review), and they probably reflect more of my own interests at present than any weakness in the article.

First, I wonder how our ability to control chronology and, by extension, time shapes the kind of landscapes that Vionis envisions. For example, there’s a tendency to see rural sites like farms or hamlets, which are often recognized and defined on the basis of rather small and limited assemblages of material, as being contemporary with one another. At the same time, because their ceramic assemblages are so limited, it is possible that, say, from a group of five rural sites datable to one or two centuries, only one existed at any given time or maybe all five did for just a very limited span or two of the five did for one 50-year span. On the one hand, we might say that this is an intractable problem because of the imprecision of archaeological dating practices and the variability of site discovery in the landscape. As a result, we make the assumption that all of the sites visible for a period existed simultaneously and that this might compensate for the vagaries of site recovery across the landscape. On the other hand, I do wonder whether this kind of methodological compromise makes the larger project of making settlement hierarchies less viable in general.

This leads me to my second observation. Myrtou Veikou’s work in Epirus which covered a similar period proposed the existence of an emerging kind of Byzantine “third space” during the period that Vionis’s studied. The concept of third space came from the post-colonial theories of Homi Bhabha and was applied to geography by the late Edward Soja. These spaces existed explicitly outside of the kinds of hierarchies that Vionis presents and represented all together less stable entities which resist classification. These places are more dynamic over time and do not map neatly onto either concepts like the rural or the urban or institutional structures like bishops, civic officials, or markets. The uncertainty and ambiguity of these places in the landscape resists our more structural efforts to define the function, scale, or relationship between settlements which can be demoralizing for scholars who work to understand Byzantine space at scale. At the same time, the notion of third-space also allows us to adapt our landscapes to the chronological ambiguity of archaeological data practically when it is collected through different methods and practices as well as at different scales and resolutions. The ambiguity of the Byzantine third space reflects the kind of data at our disposal and normalizes the fuzzy and sometimes contradictory results of our analysis.

These more dynamic spaces within the landscape also imply movement at various scales. Vionis’s work does a nice job at understanding the slow shift of settlements as they contract, reform, and reconceptualize across Boeotia. I’d be intrigued to understand how these shifts represent the flow of people, wealth, goods, and resources through the area. Vionis’s attention to walking distances from central places as a way to understand the scope of agricultural productive area in the vicinity of settlement is useful. It prompted me to think about the cultural, political, environmental, and economic variables that might shape these models for understanding movement in the countryside. For example, the decision to cultivate fields beyond a two or three hour walking distance from home or a settlement might represent the results of exogamous marriage, forms of risk management, environmental strategies, or even acts of religious piety or efforts to develop social capital. Moreover, a range of strategies in the countryside might also reflect the movement of individuals to local pilgrimage sites, visits to relatives who live in settlements that do not map onto the local hierarchical nodes, or even economic forays into new markets, new resources, or to take advantage of variability in the political landscape. Obviously it is impossible to anticipate all potential forms of fluidity in the Early and Middle Byzantine landscape, but it would be interesting to think about how the notion of settlement hierarchies intersects with Horden and Purcell’s more dynamic notion of microregions and connectivity as defining the Mediterranean world.

These comments should not be regarded as criticism of Vionis’s work, of course. It reflects both careful attention to the nature of evidence from Boeotia as well as a deep understanding of Byzantine social, political, economic, and ecclesiastical organization and history. His work, however, has prompted me to think about our efforts to understand the space and settlement of both the Western Argolid and on Cyprus during these same periods. It’s a good way to start looking ahead to my summer study seasons and some walks in the Greek and Cypriot landscape.

Survey Archaeology and Dogs

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been working my way through some recent scholarly on survey archaeology as we begin to analyze the data from the Western Argolid Regional Project. Hopefully I’ll have time to blog more at length about articles like, Marica Cassis, Owen Doonan, Hugh Elton, James Newhard, “Evaluating Archaeological Evidence for Demographics, Abandonment, and Recovery in Late Antique and Byzantine Anatolia,” Human Ecology 46 (2018): 381–398. Cassis et al. bring together the analysis of a range of survey projects in Anatolia to demonstrate a diverse array of changes in settlement across the region during the seventh and eighth centuries. The authors argue for regional variation but also connections to climate change, the occupation of marginal lands, and varying degrees of regional engagement in larger economic and political systems. 

I’ve also started to read carefully, John Bintliff, Emeri Farinetti, Božidar Slapšak, and Anthony Snodgrass, Boeotia Project, Volume II: The City of Thespiai: Survey at a Complex Urban Site. Cambridge 2017. While there is much to unpack in this volume, I genuinely appreciated the anecdote on p. 31. 

“One recollection, shared between the notebooks and our own vivid memories, is that of the ‘Hounds of Thespiai’. In those days, when dogs in rural Greece were almost never treated as pets, allowed in the home or kept on a leash (in contrast to the gilded pooches on parade in Athens’ Kolonaki Square), their main function in the countryside was to guard houses and sheep-folds. Apart from the violent barking which was the first form of custodianship, few ventured physical aggression unless one really intended to break into private property. To these rules of behaviour, comforting for the nervous student on field survey in Greece for the first time, the Mad Dogs of Thespies were a permanent exception. Once the field teams were in place in the lowlands of the ancient city each morning, only a few minutes of suspicious calm would elapse before a distant belling from the top of Thespies village hill above us would announce our detection by the Mad Dogs. They would immediately pour down the hill-side towards us at a great pace, then charge at the two teams. There never seemed to be an intention to stop short and make fierce gestures: rather, one got the repeated impression that large pieces of student were believed to be on offer to the under-fed mongrels. Only a Classical education offered daily security against the presumed threat: forming a circle, the field teams would present their steel-tipped sets of 2-m ranging poles to their would-be attackers. Wonderfully, after ten minutes of the ensuing stand-off, the Mad Dogs would slink off, but one could never be sure that an unexpected reprise might not occur later in the morning.”  

Assemblages and the 8th Century

One of the things heard among archaeologists of the Eastern Mediterranean is that the 7th century is the new 6th century. We’re living in an era during which the “Long Late Antiquity” is becoming even longer. 

In the Western Argolid in Greece, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a few Late Roman sites and assemblages both from our survey and in well-known sites in the area. My colleague Scott Gallimore and I can legitimately talk about a 7th century landscape that appears quite distinctive from earlier centuries but also shows significant signs of continuity.

At Polis Chrysochous on Cyprus, Scott Moore and I have worked on two 7th century assemblages: one from the South Basilica that we’ll publish this winter in Hesperia, and this summer we worked on a little site called EF1

P1020074

The intriguing thing about the site of EF1 is not in its architecture or even its archaeology, but that a burial with a lead sealing and a clear abandonment deposit with another lead sealing dates the destruction or abandonment of this site to sometime in the very early 8th century. The assemblage of material from the site, however, lacked many of the late-7th century artifacts that we saw across the street at the site of the South Basilica. The missing artifacts included the well-known Cypriot Red Slip “Well Form,” (dated to after 630 in a context in Anemurium) Dhiorios wares, or the last in the sequence of Late Roman Amphora (like LR13). 

We have dated the assemblage at the South Basilica to the end of the 7th century and this assemblage dates a major modification to the building’s structure. Now, however, we’re wondering whether this is really an early 8th century assemblage. The argument might go like this. Both the South Basilica assemblage and the various assemblages present at EF1 derive from secondary contexts – floor packing, construction fills, and various other levels that do not reflect use. The processes that account for the development of these assemblage took place over rather long periods of time and, as a result, the assemblages tend to have numerous examples of residual artifacts that represent a wide range of cultural and natural processes leading to their appearance in an archaeological context. In general, it appears that the material in the neighborhood of EF1 and the South Basilica derived from the nearby cite of Arsinoe (ancient Polis) and localized industrial activities. It seems reasonable to assume that the northern area of Late Antique Arsinoe saw burials, industrial activity (which took advantage of the downslope flow of water in the area), and other installations that tended to be situated on the outskirts of a Late Roman urban area.

The difference in the two assemblages in similar nearby secondary context got me thinking about both how these two groups of pottery formed over time. I had rather naively assumed that the date of the contexts was probably a couple or three decades after the latest material in the fills. This would allow for a significant enough signature of pottery to enter a particular context for it to become archaeologically visible. As I think about the South Basilica assemble, it has occurred to me that if our typical late-7th century material does not appear at EF1 where we have a pretty good date marking the abandonment of the building at this. Maybe that means that the modifications to the South Basilica has an early- to mid-8th century date?

Maybe in a few years, the 8th will be the new 7th century and on we’ll go!

Writing up the Excavations at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus, Part 1.

A few weeks ago, I boldly complained (in my head) that this is the February of Pyla-Koutsopetria. Since then, my colleagues and I have been working frantically to get the second volume of our work at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus completed and ready for submission. The second volume documents our three seasons of excavation and a couple of seasons of early excavation at the site by the Department of Antiquities on Cyprus.

I was tasked with wrapping up the conclusion while I have most of the basic summary work done, I’m working this week on the historiographic components of the conclusion that frame my more summary remarks. I’m arguing that contemporary archaeology of Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine Cyprus is primarily concerned with three things: first, it continues the tradition of placing Cyprus within the economic and political context of the Roman East; second, it has expanded from being a largely urban archaeology (with a few notable exceptions) to an archaeology invested as much in the landscape and countryside as in the monumental urban centers; and finally, work on Cyprus has contributed to the growing interest in the “long Late Antiquity” in the Eastern Mediterranean that argues from continuities between the 5th and 8th or even 9th centuries there.

This is how I started this section today (and please excuse the incomplete and, perhaps, inaccurate citations!):

Historically, urban archaeology has dominated the study of Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine Cyprus. The impressive urban sites of Paphos, Kourion, Salamis, Soloi, Amathus, and even Polis-Arsinoe have received the majority of archaeological attention. This has largely followed long-standing interests in the Iron Age kingdoms of the island and the island’s reputation as one of the most urban landscapes of the Eastern Mediterranean. For Late Antiquity, this attention to urban contexts produced a bumper crop of monumental Early Christian basilicas and excavations at Paphos, Amathus, Kourion, and Salamis revealed multiple examples of elaborate Christian buildings. The emphasis on urban sites and Christian buildings contributed to argument for long-term continuity of settlement on the island from the Iron Age into the Roman and Late Roman periods. Moreover, it provided archaeological evidence for the antiquity of these urban episcopal sees that represented the famously autonomous Cypriot church in antiquity and demonstrated ecclesiastical continuity into the modern period. The archaeological attention received by monumental Christian architecture exerted a formative influence over the trajectory of Late Roman and Byzantine archaeology on the island. Church plans, architectural typologies, and less frequently decorative techniques, particularly mosaic and wall painting, formed the basis for interpreting the place of Cyprus in the both the history of Late Roman and Byzantine architecture, and in the Eastern Mediterranean. From G. A. Soteriou’s ambitious arguments for the central role of Cypriot churches in the development of Byzantine architecture more broadly (1935; see Davis and Stewart 2014) to A.H.M. Megaw’s famous article that asked whether Byzantine architecture on Cyprus was metropolitan or provincial (1974) and Slobadon Curcic’s 2000 reformulation of that question as provincial or regional, architecture, floor plans in particular, provided evidence for the relationship between Cyprus and the rest of the Mediterranean world. Unfortunately, in many cases, these urban churches remain little known beyond their plans (and their impressive remains) with few receiving careful publications and only two, the Episcopal Basilica at Kourion and the South Basilica at Polis, resting on a thorough study of stratigraphy supported by the analysis of small finds and context pottery. As a result, these buildings remain difficult to date archaeologically. Moreover, in many cases, these buildings remain detached from their larger urban contexts as excavators either focused their attention on monumental architecture or chose primarily to publish the results from this work. There are obvious exceptions to this, of course, at Salamis, Paphos, Kourion, and Polis, but the overall unevenness of both publication and excavation has made it difficult to contextualize Cypriot architecture and urbanism within the larger Roman and Late Roman world.

Recent work on Cyprus has looked to recontextualizing the archaeology of in three basic ways. First, archaeologists have sought to continue the long-standing effort to locate Cyprus within the larger Roman, Late Roman, and Byzantine worlds. G. Hill’s and T. Mitford’s argument that Cyprus was a quiet backwater of the Roman East, based largely on historical sources, has been fundamentally challenges by the work of Dimitri Michaelides (e.g. 1996), John Hayes’s publication of the ceramics from the House of Dionysios at Paphos (1991), and the work of John Lund (xxxx). These scholars and their younger contemporaries (Leonard xxxx, Gordon 2012, xxxxxx) have demonstrated that during the first seven centuries AD, that Cyprus was deeply embedded in the economic life of the Roman East, trading extensively with their neighbors, reflecting wider trends across the empire, and exploiting their natural and agricultural resources for both public and private expressions of power and wealth. In the 21st century, recent work on connectivity, globalization, revised ideas of insularity, and hybridized culture have shaped our view of Roman Cyprus as a sphere for distinct forms of cultural and economic interaction that extend far beyond monumental architecture. The quantitative analysis of imported and local ceramics, evidence from shipwrecks and ceramic production sites, and survey and excavation at small harbors, emporia, villages, and non-monumental buildings have all contributed to a view of Cyprus that is deeply embedded in the Roman and Late Roman world.

More on Haldon’s Empire That Would Not Die

I really enjoyed John Haldon’s latest survey of the 7th century, The Empire that Would Not Die (Harvard 2016). It navigated a very successful balance between the details of 7th-century political life and the broader economic, environmental, demographic, and diplomatic conditions that structured the later Roman state, and it stands as a valuable complement to his earlier works on this period.

The main geographic focus on the book was Asia Minor and to a lesser extent, the Near East. This makes sense not only because this is where much of the best-known political and military action took place, but also where Haldon’s own archaeological fieldwork focused. It is in his analysis of the events along the Empire’s eastern frontier that be brings the most subtle and nuanced view of the relationship between what is taking place on the ground in terms of settlement, movement of people, the landscape, and urbanism and imperial and church politics. It is in these areas – as well as in the capital – where Haldon can trace the intricate web of social, political, economic, cultural and religious connects that constituted the persistent fabric of the Eastern Roman Empire and preserved it from succumbing to massive external pressures and internal confusion. He does not overlook resistance to the Empire or to Imperial policies in Africa and Italy, for example, and does not overstate the stability of a particular Roman identity across the Empire. Nor does he wade too deeply into the prickly archaeological controversies that have muddled our ability to discern clearly small-scale and local changes that took place over the course of the “long 7th century.” In other words, his analysis of this period and the persistence of the Empire as a political institution avoided the worst of the thickets associated with the study of this period.  

He also largely avoided talking about the Balkans and the southern Balkans, in particular. To my mind, Greece offers a particularly intriguing problem for understanding the persistence of Roman rule in the Eastern Mediterranean. Not only was it subject to hostile military attacks and experienced demographic decline and change, but the persistence and extent of Roman military, political, and religious institutions flickered on and off unevenly from the late-6th to 8th century. As readers of this blog by now know, part of the issue is the absence of textual sources for the region and this is compounded by an uneven and complicated archaeological record shaped by a century-long confidence in the catastrophic impact of the so-called “Slavic Invasion.” Late Antique archaeology on Cyprus had the “Arab Raids;” Greece has the Slavs. 

At the same time, the 7th century in Greece has seen a remarkable reconsideration over the past decade and the settlement patterns of this region as well as the continued functioning of urban institutions – at least in the coastal zones –  is coming into better focus. It is increasingly clear that many rural settlements and structures continued in use from the 6th to the 7th centuries and show signs of adapting to different economic networks and the political and military disruptions of these centuries. Our understanding of the relationship between city and countryside, however, remains subject to decades-old biases that either see the rural areas as dependent on cities (and vice versa) or see urban areas as the tenuous links to Roman authority in the region. If the Roman state persisted in urban areas, then the links between town and country outline the structures through which the Empire endured in the southern Balkans and perhaps preserve evidence for the changes in structures over time that provided the Empire with the adaptability to survive the disruptions of this era. 

Do check out Hugh Jeffery’s review of the book here, and, if you want, my earlier comments here.

More 7th Century

Just a short post this morning, but I’ve really been enjoying John Haldon’s The Empire That Would Not Die: The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740 (Harvard 2016). In many ways, Haldon has been responsible for the changing perceptions of the 7th and 8th century among historians and archaeologists with his several, high-influential works on the topic.

His most recent work stands 25 years (well 26), after his Byzantium in the Seventh Century, and surveys the field since this important work. The book brings together politics and religion with institutional history of the Roman state and the archaeology and even environmental history of the Late Roman world. I’ll reflect on the book more expansively next week.

What interested me the most for now, however, is that Haldon decided to use a biological metaphor for his study of the Roman state. His title and, indeed, the main focus of the book, is that states must “die.” The persistence of the Roman state in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the massive dislocations, turmoil, and changes of the 7th and 8th centuries, is, in some ways, its exceptional feature. For Haldon, the military and economic pressures on the state created conditions under which it should fail, but it didn’t.

It’s interesting that among archaeologists, we’ve increasingly come to expect continuity despite political and economic changes. In other words, we’re less inclined to expect a local social organization, political structures, or material culture to change even under rather dire or extreme pressures from military interventions or regime change. This speaks to the deep affinity to structuralism among archaeologist, our inclination to study society at the scale of centuries, and our profoundly ironic attitude to the traditional historical discourse. If history says change, archaeology frequently calls for continuity. 

As I read Haldon’s book, I can’t help but constantly turn his premise on its head and wonder what agents and force would be necessary to make a state change at all and what kind of change would be necessary for us to declare a state well and truly dead.